Empire of Illusion – A book Review

Some time ago I watched an interview of author Chris Hedges by TVO’s Allan Gregg.  The title of his latest book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle really piqued my curiosity.   Having now read it, the content of the book seems particularly apt to comment on in this blog.

Click to hear Chris Hedges on CBC Radio.

Click to hear Chris Hedges on CBC Radio.

The Quintillion Times is a chronicle of how media and emerging media technologies affect our culture and those who live under its influence.  Empire of Illusion is a narrative describing America’s descent into a fatuous experience of epic couch potato-ism.

Chris Hedges obtained a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and has travelled the world reporting on a variety of human experiences for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio and The New York Times. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of global terrorism.  He’s also been a professor at Columbia, Princeton and New York Universities as well as the University of Toronto.

Whether you agree with his general beliefs or not, Empire of Illusion offers a fascinating opinion on the role of media in casting a kind of somniferous spell on the American public – a condition which may have relevance to Canada and other western democracies.  He echoes the voice of Noam Chomsky in describing how the American public has become distracted by the vast media circus.  To add depth to his story, Hedges cites many authoritative voices including authors like Naomi Klein and political philosophers such as John Ralston Saul and Sheldon S. Wolin.

Quoting Wolin, Hedges describes the American state as approaching an inverted totalitarianism.  Rather than charismatic leaders, it is an anonymous corporate state which inundates the media-scape with mesmerizing diversions: Lascivious details about the lives of media stars through whom we live vicariously, and political pseudo-events that distract people away from meaningful civic participation or any real understanding of fundamental issues.

Hedges illustrates how consent for the Iraqi war after 911 was manufactured by actions such as Dick Cheney supplying media outlets with top secret information about Saddam Hussein’s preparations for an atomic bomb.  The secret “facts” were presented as coming from anonymous government sources.  Once published for the world to see, it allowed Cheney to appear on Meet the Press and (while attributing the story to the New York Times) validate the story that Saddam had attempted to obtain parts needed for a uranium enrichment project.

Similarly, the CBC documentary series Love, Hate and Propaganda revealed in its episode The War on Terror, the story of a 15 year old Kuwaiti girl who testified before the American congressional caucus on human rights.  She tearfully conveyed witnessing first hand how Iraqi soldiers removed babies from incubators and let them die on the floor.  The story was all over the news.  Its shocking content helped drive support for the first war between America and Iraq.  The problem is, the whole story was fabricated.  That 15 year-old girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and further, she was not even present during the Iraqi invasion to witness any such event.

Thus unfolds the theme of “news as spectacle” in Empire of Illusion.  Hedges describes how the news has become dominated by content like celebrity gossip and quasi-advertising (such as new product announcements) written by corporate public relations officers.  Corporate dominated news outlets become complicit in validating lies, even acting like a government mouthpiece.

Hedges’ book identifies how independent thought has withered during a period where “spoiled, intellectually limited and wealthy elitists [get] churned out by” ivy-league schools.  For-profit universities train this elite not in the art of independent thought, but as extensions of self-interested corporations.  Education becomes instruction of how to accumulate wealth.  Rather than nurturing knowledge for its own sake, “some forty-five colleges and universities” have become listed on the NYSE or the NASDAQ.  The economic imperative has taken over.

Hedges identifies the emergence of an economic “oligarchy” which has seized important influence over elected officials.   Ralph Nader called it “the corporate state” when he appeared on the CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange.  All the while, American freedoms are being curtailed – with the public cowed into submission by tales of terrorist cataclysms.

We have just learned of the effect of this mode of thought on government.  Edward Snowden’s revelations show just how far the NSA has taken its mandate to subpoena “any tangible thing” including meta-data from telecom giants.  This broad and vague definition (as described in the congressionally approved rules governing the federal domestic telephone records program) was approved by congress.  Whether or not the congressmen and women truly understood what they were authorizing was debated on the June 17, 2013 episode of TVO’s the Agenda: Secrecy and the Limits of Transparency.

Hedges also claims that the “capitalist ideology of unlimited growth has failed”, a sentiment echoed by – ironically – Jeff Rubin, the former Chief Economist and Chief Strategist at CIBC World Markets.

But this book does not dwell only on politico-economic issues.  The second chapter entitled The Illusion of Love describes the hollow experiences surrounding both the consumers and producers of pornography.  The chapter is a metaphor for the objectification of human beings as commodities, as objects to be used and discarded in a culture defined by corporate greed; alas – devoid of any capacity for empathy.

Look around you and ask yourself:  Do we live in an environment dominated and increasingly defined by an ever-present dissemination of commercial messages?  As we are bombarded by subliminal and overt messages from birth, do they inform our values?  Does news as spectacle contribute to a voyeuristic fascination with celebrities?  And does all this stimulation distract from real learning, greater understanding of the objective world and truer empathy towards others?  These are questions particularly suited to the age of Quintillion.

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